Bush angers slain man's family

The Byrds harbor deep resentments over the Texas governor's treatment of their family and failure to support a hate crimes bill.

Published October 16, 2000 12:48PM (EDT)

Louvon Harris was walking through her modest Houston living room last Wednesday night, not really paying much attention to the second presidential debate on TV, when she heard Vice President Al Gore mention her brother's name.

"I kind of stopped," she says.

The subject was racial profiling, but Gore had changed the subject to hate crimes.

"James Byrd was singled out because of his race in Texas, and other Americans have been singled out because of their race or ethnicity," Gore said, referring to the death of James Byrd Jr., who was chained to a truck and dragged three miles to his death in June 1998 at age 49. By the time his torso was ditched at one of Jasper County's oldest black cemeteries, Byrd's head had been severed.

A hate crimes law would punish criminals for crimes rooted in prejudice, Gore said. "I think these crimes are different. I think they're different because they're based on prejudice and hatred which gives rise to crimes that have not a single victim but are intended to dehumanize a whole group of people," Gore argued. Gore pointed out that Gov. George W. Bush had let a hate crimes bill die in a Texas Senate committee.

That's when Bush responded -- and when Harris got "emotional."

Bush said Texas already had a hate crimes statute, and nothing more was needed, since Texas laws were tough on criminals regardless of the ethnicity of their victims.

"The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what's going to happen to them?" Bush said, smiling. "They'll be put to death. A jury found them guilty. It will be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death." In actuality, two of Byrd's three murderers -- John William King and Lawrence Russell Brewer -- have been sentenced to death, while the third, Shawn Allen Berry, was sentenced to life in prison, and will be eligible for parole after 40 years.

Reached over the weekend, members of the Byrd family said that they weren't surprised Bush got the details of the case wrong. Unlike other Texas public officials -- they cite local mayors, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and President Clinton -- Bush was never remotely comforting to their family after Byrd's grisly murder, they say.

"I wasn't surprised that he didn't know," says one of Byrd's younger sisters, Betty Boatner, 46. "I wasn't surprised at all."

Bush "should have known" the details of the trial, says Stella Byrd, James Byrd Jr.'s mother. "But I wasn't surprised about his reaction." She says Bush showed no concern when her granddaughter talked to him in May 1999 to try to persuade Bush to support the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, which would have increased punishment for criminals motivated by hatred of a victim's gender, religion, ethnic background or sexual orientation. "So I'm sure with that lack of interest, he didn't ask to see what was going on."

The Byrd family, however, seems most angry with Bush for his opposition to the hate crimes law Democratic state legislators named after Byrd. They slam him for not supporting it -- as will an ad coming out this week sponsored by the NAACP National Voter Fund. The Byrd family also plans to vote for Gore.

But while the Byrds may have plenty of reasons to resent Bush, the Jasper County prosecutor who tried Byrd's killers says that even had the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act been at his disposal, the outcome would likely not have changed. The law would not have affected his ability to seek capital punishment for any of the three men, he says, and thus its relevance is questionable. How Bush treated the Byrds according to the family, however, is certainly something that the Democrats would do well to publicize.

Guy James Gray, a Jasper County district attorney -- and a Democrat who supports Bush -- says he was surprised Bush flubbed the details of the Byrd case. "I run into that a lot," Gray says. "A lot of people think that all three of 'em got the death penalty. But [Bush] should have known that there were two, and not three."

Byrd's sister Harris was offended, however, that Bush acted as if he had much to do with the swift, Texas-style prosecution the killers went through. "To me it was a show for the people," she says, "but the people who live in Texas know the kind of governor he is and the type of liar he is."

Says Harris: "I was offended that George Bush even used my brother's name."

The hostility that many members of the Byrd family feel toward the Texas governor is real, and if Democrats have their way, it will soon become well known.

The ad features Byrd's oldest daughter, Renee Mullins, 29, an Army veteran and homemaker who says she was moved to speak out on the issue after the debate. "It was just another way of him misleading the public," says Mullins. "He didn't have the statistics right."

More significantly, Mullins says, Bush left the impression that he supported hate crimes legislation. "I knew I had to do something," she says, "because I was a firsthand witness" to the fact that Bush opposed the 1999 hate crimes bill.

On May 6, 1999, Mullins; her cousin, Darrell Verrett; state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston; and a gay rights lobbyist met with Bush to lobby on behalf of the bill.

"I went in there pleading to him," Mullins says. "I said that if he helped me move it along I would feel that he hadn't died in vain ... [Rep.] Thompson said, 'Gov. Bush, what Renee's trying to say is, Would you help her pass the bill?' And he said, 'No.' Just like that."

"He had a nonchalant attitude, like he wanted to hurry up and get out of there," Mullins says. "It was cold in that room."

The NAACP National Voter fund newspaper ad -- part of a radio, TV and newspaper campaign -- focuses on this exchange: "I went to Governor George W. Bush and begged him to help pass a Hate Crimes Bill in Texas," Mullins says in the ad. "He just told me no."

While responding, "We certainly understand their emotion," Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan disputes the Byrd family's description of his boss's attitude.

"Throughout the process, Governor Bush has treated the Byrd family with a great deal of respect," Sullivan says. "He spoke to them prior to Mr. Byrd's funeral. He gave 45 minutes of his time to meet with Miss Mullins. The governor's office helped to fund the prosecution of Mr. Byrd's killers."

The Byrds scoff at this. No one in the family spoke to Bush on the phone, they say. Mullins says she met with Bush for about half an hour -- and only after massive pressure on Bush to do so. Bush's office's effort to aid the prosecution was pretty simple, in the form of a $100,000 grant -- about a third of what the federal government and Jasper County taxpayers each kicked in. Moreover, Bush did nothing to help pass the hate crimes bill that bore James Byrd Jr.'s name.

The chasm between the Byrd family and the governor began right after Byrd's murder, when Bush said he wouldn't attend Byrd's funeral because he thought the atmosphere would be too "politically charged" -- even though Hutchison, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and other officials had no problem attending. Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said that Bush's no-show at the funeral was at the Byrd family's request, but no one in the Byrd family knows about such a request.

"Nobody told him to stay away," says Mullins.

The family also disputes Bush's claim that he called the Byrds to offer his condolences, saying that not one of them could recall ever speaking to him. Although Bush cannot recall whom he supposedly spoke with, a Bush spokesman produced phone records showing a two-minute phone call from the governor's mansion to a home in Jasper.

"He says that, but I don't know who he talked to," says Stella Byrd. "He didn't talk to me."

Bush's seeming indifference made him unique, the Byrds say.

"Lots of officials offered condolences to me, my parents and my brother's children," Harris says. "Senator Hutchison, she supported the family, she called the family, she talked to my brother's children. Even the president himself, he called the family, he talked to my brother's children and my parents, he offered his condolences personally.

"I can't understand why Bush wasn't able to get through," she says. "For him to make a point about that, and not know the facts about that, that's a lie."

Bush's opposition to the bill reportedly revolved around the fact that it would cover gays and lesbians. The governor's office "contacted the family and asked if we would consider taking sexual orientation out of the bill," Harris says. "And our answer was no, because the bill is for everybody. Everybody should be protected by the law."

But in 1994, Bush pledged to veto any effort to repeal an anti-sodomy law, calling it "a symbolic gesture of traditional values." Protecting gays under a hate crimes law presumably wouldn't even be a thought he would entertain.

In this, Harris and other members of the family take issue with Bush's claim to be "a uniter, not a divider." "If he was a uniter, then he'd be for all people and not just some people," Harris says. "He's very judgmental. He can't say 'uniter.' He divided himself when he tried to take sexual orientation out of the bill."

Bush spokesman Sullivan says the governor never took a position one way or another on the bill: "Ultimately, the 1999 bill failed in the Legislature and never made it to Governor Bush's desk. It never made it out of the Legislature."

Would Bush have voted for the House version?

"The bill never made it out of the Legislature," Sullivan says.

What about reports that he would have supported the bill had sexual orientation been removed from the list of prejudices included in the law?

"The bill never made it out of the Legislature," Sullivan says.

Democrats point out other holes in Bush's statements during the second presidential debate. He argued that "we have a hate crimes bill in Texas," referring to a bill signed into law in 1993 by then Gov. Ann Richards. Many Texas prosecutors consider the law too vague, and point out that as of the push for a stronger bill in May 1999, only two hate crimes cases had been prosecuted under state law.

District attorney Gray disagrees, saying that the current law -- which increases penalties for criminals motivated by "hatred of any group" -- is a "good law."

"No court has ever said that it's not good," Gray says, "though there haven't been a whole lot of prosecutions under it -- that's true."

Additionally, Sullivan says, Bush helped to strengthen the law in 1995 and 1997. "In '95 they clarified the law," making it less vague, he says, "and in '97 the Legislature passed, and Governor Bush signed, a law increasing the minimum sentence for misdemeanor hate crimes."

Plus, had a stronger hate crimes law been on the books, the case against the three men who brutally attacked Byrd would probably not have turned much different.

Texas law allows for the death penalty only when a criminal has been convicted of another crime -- in addition to murder -- that is included on a list of specified aggravated offenses. In the Byrd case, the additional charge to murder was kidnapping. The proposed Byrd hate crimes bill, however, would not have counted any "hate crime" as a second offense toward capital punishment.

"The various hate crimes bills, none of them call for the death penalty," Gray says.

"That was a little bit of a problem for us, finding the second offense," Gray says. "We were able to do it, but it would have been easier if in the capital statute there was something like a hate crime, something involving torture or dragging." Gray says there were other reasons why Berry didn't receive the death penalty. "I made a mistake in jury selection," Gray says. "The verdict was 10-2 on the death penalty, and one of them was pretty vocal against it. Also, part of it was he really wasn't as culpable as the other two. He hadn't been in the Klan; he hadn't been in the penitentiary before."

Also, Gray says, "one of his jailers allowed him a little extra freedom to get outside and paint and things. And that had an impact on the jury, that the jailer didn't think he was very dangerous."

What of Bush's portrayal of himself as part of a system that pushed for the most severe punishment for King, Brewer and Berry?

During the trials of the three men, Byrd's sister Harris says, Bush "didn't offer any support. The FBI and the prosecution team fought hard and proved kidnapping and murder -- that wasn't because of state of Texas laws. For him to sit there and take credit for things he didn't do was offensive to me and my family."

While the Bush campaign counters that Bush approved the $100,000 grant to aid the prosecution's efforts, Gray estimates the cost of the prosecutions to be around $750,000, about a third of which came from the federal government.

But the technical details, at least for the Byrds, don't seem to be the point. Beneath the surface of their outrage lies the failure of Bush -- usually a master of superficiality -- to make basic gestures of humanity toward a grieving family.

"It's really not a Democrat thing or a Republican thing," says Mullins, Byrd's oldest daughter, of her support for Gore. "I usually vote for the best person, regardless of what party they're in. But I just think that Gore is more sympathetic."

Members of the Byrd family think that Bush was indifferent and duplicitous in their time of grief; cold and callous during their efforts to pass a law so that, in their minds, James Byrd Jr. didn't die in vain; misleading and woefully ignorant on the campaign trail whenever Byrd's name was raised. They think he's lying about his phone call to them, that he's lying about meeting with Mullins for 45 minutes, that he's lying about caring in any way about their plight. And though Bush may be fundamentally correct in his assertion that the proposed hate crimes bill would not have made a difference in this case, his clumsiness as a "healer" has manifested itself in some strong suspicions by the Byrd family.

"If he had his way, he would be standoffish to black America," Harris says. "But since he's running for president, he has to do his campaigning as if he loves all people. But I have my doubts about that. I think it's all a ploy. I'm not in a position to judge anybody's heart, but actions speak louder than words."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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